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Veteran Tom McEvoy still living a dream in Vegas

8 May 2008

In 1978, Tom McEvoy was a 34-year-old accountant in Grand Rapids, Mich. where he and his wife were raising three young children. He had been working for the same firm for five temperamental years when his boss finally reached a boiling point and called McEvoy into his office. The news was not good. McEvoy was fired.

Competence wasn't the problem. In fact, McEvoy's boss told him that he really couldn't ask for a better accountant, but there was a laundry list of other reasons for his dismissal. McEvoy concedes that he "wasn't really good at office politics." He also fully admits that his weekly poker game usually began on Friday night and would sometimes last straight through Sunday, causing him to "sometimes not be as fresh as I should have been come Monday morning."

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Tom McEvoy won the WSOP Main Event in 1983 (photo by Neil Stoddart/PokerStars)

"There were times I forgot to shave," he remembers with a devilish laugh. "And I had to commute 40 miles so I would be late on occasion. So I guess it wasn't a total shock to hear I had been fired. Looking back though, it was the biggest favor anyone had ever done for me."

McEvoy can say that with conviction because about one year after receiving his pink slip, he made the bold decision to become a professional poker player. Today, Tom McEvoy is one of the most accomplished poker players the game has ever seen.

This year he is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his win at the 1983 World Series of Poker Main Event. And in the midst of his preparations for his 28th straight Main Event, the 63-year-old sat down with Casino City to talk about his incredible journey.


Poker in his blood

Tom McEvoy learned poker as a 5-year-old kid in Michigan while literally sitting on the lap of his grandmother, Louise. He continued to play the game regularly as he grew up, attended high school and graduated from nearby Ferris State University with a degree in accounting.

Not only did he become an avid player, but McEvoy also made himself into a very talented player. There were many weeks when he would win as much or more money at his $5 home poker games than he made with his job as an accountant.

Tom_Mcevoy_B

(photo by Rob Gracie for PokerStars)

Three Things You Didn't Know About Tom McEvoy

1. He considers himself a rabid "fine-diner," which prompted us to ask him to list his three favorite Las Vegas restaurants. "Number one would have to be Kokomos at the Mirage. They have a wonderful lobster dish with a butter sauce that is just out of this world. Number two would probably be Hugo's Cellar down in Four Queens. They have a great rack of lamb dish and I love all the fish dishes and the raspberry chicken. It's a great atmosphere and every lady that walks in the door gets a rose. The third would probably be Ferraro's on West Flamingo Road, which is a great place for fine Italian dining."

2. He has played against every WSOP Main Event champion in the history of the event. He has also twice been busted in the Main Event by the eventual champ – Phil Helmuth in 1989 and Berry Johnston in 1986. "It's not something that I'm very pleased about, but it is an interesting historical footnote, nonetheless."

3. He has sworn off playing craps, is a decent blackjack player and struggles mightily when it comes to picking football winners. "I like to play other things besides poker, just for fun. I'm a career-winner in blackjack, playing $5 and $10, and could probably get real good at it if I spent some time with it. About four years ago at a craps table I chased a $20 'don't pass' bet and lost seven straight times, which is hard to do. I lost $600 and felt like the biggest sucker in the casino. I swore I'd never place another craps bet and I haven't. I stick to poker and blackjack and once in a while I like to bet football. I make a $500 donation a year at the sportsbooks, so anytime I make a bet on a pro football game, just go with the other team and you'll do just fine."

Ironically, six months before he was fired, McEvoy went to Las Vegas for a championship tournament for table tennis, another one of his hobbies in which he excelled. But he didn't fare so well in the tournament, mostly because he spent the bulk of his time at Caesars Palace playing Seven Card Stud into the late hours of the evening.

"I won $1,000 in one week, which was pretty good considering my annual salary at the time was $18,000 and the president of my company was making about $50,000," he says. "I was planning on going back [to Vegas] on my next vacation. After I got fired, that next vacation came a little earlier than I thought it would."

McEvoy's wife gave him the green light to contemplate his firing by heading to Vegas to play some cards. And while he earned $3,000 in less than two weeks, it was his discovery of the World Series of Poker that really changed things.

"I literally found it by accident," McEvoy remembers. "I stumbled into the Horseshoe and I saw this big crowd, eight people deep, watching two guys playing poker. I asked what all the fuss was about and someone told me it was the final table of the World Series of Poker."

The two guys playing heads-up happened to be Bobby Baldwin and Crandell Addington. Baldwin went on to win and witnessing the event gave McEvoy a rush.

"I was amazed by the whole thing -- it made a big impact on me," he says. "That's when I decided that this was something I wanted to try for a living."


Vegas or bust!

McEvoy spent the next year flying back and forth from Las Vegas to Michigan. He would stay in Vegas for two or three weeks at a time, learning as much as he could about Texas Hold'em and all the different variations. Once he realized that he could realistically make a living out of playing poker, he convinced his wife to move to Vegas. The McEvoys sold their house in Michigan, packed up a U-Haul trailer with their belongings and began their journey out west.

"I think my grandmother was the only family member that didn't have a something negative to say about the move, and she had her wits about her right until the very end," McEvoy says of his grandmother, who passed away in 1980 at the age of 98. "Not many people thought it was a very good idea. But I just kept telling everyone that within five years I'd be playing for a world championship. Everybody kept telling me I was crazy and that I'd be back in Michigan within six months."

Nearly 30 years have passed and McEvoy is still in Vegas. He's won more than $2.5 million in career earnings and owns four World Series bracelets (Main Event and $1,000 Limit Hold'em in 1983, $1,000 Razz in 1986, $1,500 Limit Omaha in 1992). In addition, he regularly conducts poker lessons and has authored or co-authored 12 books on poker strategy.

McEvoy played in his first WSOP event in 1980 and the first time he cashed in at a WSOP event was in a Razz tournament in 1982. He made his first appearance in the Main Event in 1983 and hasn't missed one since. Only Berry Johnston (28 straight) and Dewey Tomko (33) have more consecutive appearances in the Main Event than McEvoy, who credits his "good, clean" lifestyle for his longevity.

"There's a reason why they call Vegas 'Sin City,'" he says. "This place exploits your weaknesses. But I'm not a big drinker – maybe a glass of wine here or there – I absolutely despise smoking and I've never taken drugs in my life. That's what's helped me last so long."

The highlight of McEvoy's career was his Main Event victory in 1983 in which he became the first champion to earn his seat via satellite. The victory did not come easy as McEvoy, who won the $1,000 Limit Hold'em event earlier in that year's World Series. He had to fight through a field of 108 opponents in the Main Event, which at the time was a record and his final two opponents were Doyle Brunson and Rod Peate. Brunson ended up in third that year, marking the last time Texas Dolly has made the Main Event's final table.

Peate held a nearly 600,000 chip lead early in heads-up play, but McEvoy fought back and after more than seven hours of play, he won the match. The blinds were at a record $8,000-$16,000 when McEvoy was dealt a pair of queens. Peate was holding K-J suited, but could only draw a jack on river, leading to an uncharacteristic celebration from the normally reserved McEvoy, who earned $540,000. The marathon match, which Mike Sexton told McEvoy at the time, "set poker back 10 years," still ranks as the longest heads-up meeting in Main Event history.

"I jumped straight up in the air and landed on my chair and I just started yelling, 'I did it! I did it!…Thank you Grandma!'" remembers McEvoy, who was decked out in a western cowboy outfit. "It's the only time in my career that I celebrated like that, but after seven hours I couldn't contain myself."


'The Times, They Are A-Changin'

While McEvoy has remained a constant at the World Series of Poker, the event has changed in many ways since his breakthrough victory.

"The contrast is like night and day," he says. "When I talk about 1983 now, it sounds like I'm talking about prehistoric times."

One of the biggest innovations involving the game has been the advent of online poker. While McEvoy may be a classic "old-school" poker player, he hasn't resisted the online variation. Instead he has embraced it ever since he broke down and bought himself a computer and cell phone five years ago.

Almost six years ago, McEvoy was the first professional player to sign on with PokerStars. Today, he fully admits to being an "online junkie." He plays under his own name and logs as many as 30 hours a week on his computer playing poker.

"I love the fact that I can just sit home in my pajamas and play poker," says McEvoy, who has cut back on his live cash game participation and normally only plays in games with a buy-in of $500 or more. "I can jump around from game to game and the action is much faster than in a casino. It's still poker. It's just a different kind. You're not looking at someone eyeball-to-eyeball so you've got to be a little more mechanical.

"There's not doubt that playing online has made me a better player. These young wipper snappers are all doing well in the World Series for a reason. They play a lot of poker. They can get as much as 10 years of the kind of experience I got as a youngster just by playing six months online. These kids are playing eight, 16, sometimes 20 games at a time and they do it all day. I have to give them credit because the ones who have made it have worked their way into becoming great players."

With that said, McEvoy fully believes there is still a place for the players from his era in the game.

"Us old guys are all still good players," he says. "We may not have the stamina of these young Internet hotshots, but we've still got the game and we can play with them, that's for sure."

And McEvoy intends to do just that this summer. About two weeks ago he began a strict diet that has eliminated all meats, sugar and breads in order to get himself in top physical shape for the WSOP. He's already lost 12 pounds and is fully confident that his game, along with his new body shape, will pay dividends. He expects to play in at least 15 events and when asked for a prediction on how he will fare, there was no hesitation.

"I'm going to cash this year at the Main Event" claims McEvoy, who last cashed at the Main Event in 2006 when he picked up $30,000. "I'm ready for it. I've got more discipline than ever before, I've obviously got the experience and I really believe that by being in good physical shape I'm going to be able to breakthrough this year."

This article is part of a series of poker professional profiles being produced by Casino City in anticipation of the 2008 World Series of Poker, which begins on May 30. Previously interviewed for this series was Vanessa Rousso.

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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT